Sun Country: Savory Recipe for a Good Old Fashioned Airline Strike?
Posted by Tony Randgaard on Monday, May 25, 2015 at 12:00 AM By Tony Randgaard / May 25, 2015 Comment
Spirit Airlines Déjà VuDowntrodden Minnesota sports fans know the feeling: facing the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs or watching Aaron Rodgers carve up the Vikings in the fourth quarter of a football game. It’s a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that something bad is going to happen. That a loss is somehow preordained. For Sun Country executives their “Aaron Rodgers” is ALPA and that negative déjà vu script played out during the last U.S. pilot strike at Spirit Airlines in June 2010. There are a number of similarities between the Sun Country and Spirit scenarios that portend a strike:
1. Spirit pilots were also among the lowest paid in the industry. 2. Both carrier negotiations were stalled with the National Mediation Board for more than 3 years 3. Both carriers are small enough that the Obama administration would not step in and halt the strike (as previous administrations did with American Airlines’ pilots) 4. ALPA represents both pilot groupsIt’s easy to imagine that ALPA leadership feels that they are in the catbird’s seat. Sun Country leases its 21 jets and mandatory payments would make a shutdown exceedingly expensive. Spirit was a much bigger and more profitable corporation at the time of their strike. Spirit revenues are almost five times as large as Sun Country while Spirit’s 2014 profit of $225 million soars above a Sun Country loss of $676,000 in 2014 and small profit of $2.4 million the prior year.2 In spite of their deep pockets Spirit could withstand only a five day strike in 2010. The strike brought Spirit to its knees and forced the airline to cancel all of its flights. The situation played out perfectly for ALPA as its negotiators wrung out a deal that increased average captain’s hourly pay by 10 percent and first officer pay by a robust 18 percent. When the National Mediation Board declared an impasse at Spirit, ALPA quickly rejected the offer of arbitration -- to escalate a strike countdown. Why wouldn’t they do the same here? Sun Country pilots have already voted unanimously to authorize a strike when the time comes. After the vote, ALPA spokesman Jake Yockers said:
“We hope this sends a message that we are serious about getting a new contract.”
Strike PlanningWhen the Spirit strike hit, customers had little notice.
“We got online this morning and there was nothing posted. We called and they said all flights were on schedule,” lamented Ralph Aversa at the Atlantic City Airport. When Spirit cancelled their entire schedule, thousands of customers like Aversa were stranded across the nation. “It’s a pain in the butt, said fellow passenger Dominique Maucert. “I’m trying to book another AirTran flight, but they’re trying to charge us more than double. I’m going to have to pay for a hotel room, if not sleep in the airport.”How worried should Sun Country customers be about a potential strike? The good news is that the company and pilots are still in federal mediation (with next meeting planned for May 27) and as noted, that ensures a minimum 30 day cooling off buffer for the public. Near term travel is not at risk. On the other hand, customers should be vigilant about longer term trip planning. After more than 3 years in mediation, an impasse could be declared this summer. The National Mediation Board had no qualms about releasing Spirit during the busy summer travel timeframe and may not blink about doing that again.
Worth WatchingIn the weeks ahead, all eyes should be watching the National Mediation Board while keeping a steady gaze through the rearview mirror -- on Sun Country’s schedule. If the Board throws up its arms and declares an impasse, the strike clock starts ticking. On the other hand, we’ll be monitoring Sun Country’s scheduling news. The carrier has an innovative “lease swap” program with Dutch-based Transavia Airlines. The carrier is a low cost leisure and charter carrier to more than 100 destinations. In a typical summer Sun Country transfers aircraft to Transavia.
“Transavia been working closely together with Sun Country Airlines (SCA) on fleet capacity for over a decade… During the summer season of 2015 Transavia will not be using Sun Country aircraft,” stated Transavia spokesperson Jacqueline Beerendonk.While that option to reduce flying appears empty, we’ll be watching to see if Sun Country attempts to turn in leased aircraft or find other means to cut its schedule and ratchet up pressure on the pilots. If they do, we are dealing with a toxic situation and the traveling public better buckle their seat belts for some unexpected strike-related turbulence! It would signal “Buyer Beware” for travel planners looking beyond the 30 day cooling down period. The good news is that my trusty Schwinn is retired now and we will be sitting out the white knuckle countdown to a pilot’s deal this time.